What’s economic growth got to do with expanding waistlines?

OBESE NATION: It’s time to admit it – Australia is becoming an obese nation. This series looks at how this has happened and more importantly, what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic.

Today we look at how we got here, with Garry Egger discussing economic growth and why we should use the economic slowdown to try to shrink our waistlines while Russell Keast explains how, by creating food to suit our appetite, we have found the recipe for nutritional disaster.

According to Andy Warhol, everyone has his or her 15 minutes of fame. Looking back at four decades as a health scientist, I’m afraid mine will probably be the development of “GutBusters”, the world’s first men’s “waist loss” program in 1991.

GutBusters lasted for over a decade before it was taken over by a big weight-loss company and closed down for being unprofitable. Men don’t like to admit there’s anything wrong with their health and hence won’t pay for it.

So ended my 15 minutes. But if the truth be told, I probably would have closed it down myself. Not because of its commercial failure, but because of the ethical challenge of taking money from men who lost weight but put it all back on when they went back into the “obesogenic” environment.

Some families are more prone to gaining weight than others. o soy andRë

The curse of prosperity

There’s a tendency to think that obesity is a genetic problem. This is encouraged by the fact that some families are more prone to gaining weight than others. It’s partly true, but in the absence of an environment that promotes obesity, only a tiny minority cursed by their genetic lot would get fat. That’s why the history of humanity is one of leanness, rather than fatness.

What, then, is it in our modern environment that has made around 60% of Australians overweight or obese, given that this epidemic only began around 1980? The answer of course, lies in our food supply (highly processed, high fattening but very tasty and easy to get) and inactivity (through leisure-saving and entertainment technology such as cars, television, and computers).

But a good health scientist doesn’t just look for the immediate cause of a disease. She also looks at the cause of the cause. What then has led us to fattening food and an inactive lifestyle? Quite clearly, it is the affluence resulting from a system of macro-economics (economic growth) that began around the time of the industrial revolution and was kicked along by post-depression policies.

Entertainment technology breeds inactivity. Rad Jose

There’s no doubt that economic growth has been the biggest single positive influence on human health throughout history. Our life spans have more than doubled and infectious diseases have all but been eliminated (well, not quite, but we’ll discuss that another time) – all as a result of increased growth.

Does this mean such improvements will continue indefinitely?

In economic terms (as in all limited systems), there comes a time when further investment leads to diminishing rates of return. Growth beyond this is no longer rewarding. As one writer so eloquently put it, “growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer.” In other words, things grow, hit a sweet spot where all is the best it can be, then proceed to decline.

Pulling on the brakes

Unlike animals that run away and leave a good meal if frightened by predators, humans have a tendency to want to milk the sweet spot to its maximum. Like Cinderella, we often stay too long at the ball, only to find our carriage has turned into a pumpkin. It’s a well-recognised phenomena used in explanations such as the Peter Principle, where someone will rise to a level above his or her competency in a work environment in an effort to find an even nicer sweet spot.

Stopping the growth train will take a long time. Jim Mead

Economic growth hit the end of its sweet spot in the western world around 1980, the time at which the obesity epidemic got its kick start. Since then, obesity rates have increased almost in parallel with increases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that ridiculous measure of human achievement that politicians cling to.

But the economic sweet spot, like all sweet spots eventually had to come to an end. And contrary to the belief of many economists (and politicians) about the current economic crisis being a problem of not enough growth, a more reasoned view would be that it’s a sign of the death throes of the 200-year growth era.

Stopping the growth train (even though it’s heading for a cliff) takes a long time. And few are even talking (at least in public) about stopping it at this stage. Even fewer have considered the effects of not doing so on our health. The uncertainty in world financial markets may make the next few years the time to do so. After all, it was an economist who said “never let an impending crisis go to waste.”

This is part five of our series Obese Nation. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

Part one: Mapping Australia’s collective weight gain

Part two: Explainer: overweight, obese, BMI – what does it all mean?

Part three: Explainer: how does excess weight cause disease?

Part four: Recipe for disaster: creating a food supply to suit the appetite

Part six: Preventing weight gain: the dilemma of effective regulation

Part seven: Filling the regulatory gap in chronic disease prevention

Part eight: Why a fat tax is not enough to tackle the obesity problem

Part nine: Education, wealth and the place you live can affect your weight

Part ten: Innovative strategies needed to address Indigenous obesity

Part eleven: Two books, one big issue: Why Calories Count and Weighing In

Part twelve: Putting health at the heart of sustainability policy

Part thirteen: Want to stop the obesity epidemic? Let’s get moving

Part fourteen: Fat of the land: how urban design can help curb obesity

Part fifteen: Industry-sponsored self-regulation: it’s just not cricket

Part sixteen: Regulation and legislation as tools in the battle against obesity


This article was originally published in The Conversation.